Essay

The story of George

THIS IS THE story of George, who thinks art can change the world. To do this, he tells a tale of conflict where different visions of life struggle to survive and fundamentalists of Islam show that they have more in common with the fundamentalists of the West than with their co-religionists.

I've known George Gittoes a long time. I think we were sixteen when we first met at Kingsgrove North High, an over-large school at the start of Sydney's south-west sprawl. I remember the newly arrived George telling the headmaster he was an atheist so he could get out of scripture classes.

‘That means you're Church of England,' was the growled reply. So George spent the next two years terrifying the local fundamentalist clergyman with some pretty basic questions on the resurrection of the body and the precise nature of life everlasting. George was serious about exploring spirituality, and could not be fobbed off with slogans from St Paul. Soon after we left school, the clergyman left the church and joined Foreign Affairs.

At school, we found greater sources of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment than scripture. Most importantly, there was the art class, which George dominated in the same way as he had taken over scripture. Here he used his not inconsiderable powers of persuasion to ensure that the entire class undertook a specialist study of Islamic visual traditions for the Higher School Certificate. The teacher had no special knowledge of Islamic art, but she was wise enough to let us find out for ourselves. Whipped along by George's passion, we delved into libraries to research the beauty and the meaning of formal Kufic script, the elaborate Persian Nasta'liq and the Spanish Andalusi. We hunted libraries for photographs of the Alhambra, Samarqund and the Taj Mahal. We found how poetry, music and dance were all a part of the visual and material culture of Islam. Our Islamic explorations did not go unnoticed by our English teacher, who gave his students parting presents of Fitzgerald's version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

George was entranced. Omar Khayyam became for him a springboard to discover Rumi, the great Sufi poet, who led him to a lifelong interest in the more mystic aspects of Islam. George was around university for just long enough to read Van Gogh's Letters to Theo. At a time when it was easy to admire Van Gogh for the way he liberated colour and form, George appreciated his spiritual use of colour, his tortured searching for transcendental meaning in art and life. He was most enthusiastic about Van Gogh's magical but doomed idea to create a Yellow House where artists could live and work together in harmony. A few years after he dropped out of university, George was at Sydney's Kings Cross with Martin Sharp, Albie Thoms, Bruce Goold, Peter Kingston and others where they created the Yellow House, a place that did indeed change Australian art. Here, in the midst of Martin Sharp's collage events, Peter Kingston's Stone Room and Brett Whiteley's bonsai, George turned towards a Sufi-inspired mysticism. In his Puppet Theatre, decorated with forms quoting Islamic calligraphy, he created his own versions of classic Sufi tales. The room is recorded in Greg Weight's photographs of that magical place; some of the exquisite drawings are in the collection of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum. George's devotion to an imagined Sufic tradition led to him dressing in skirts and performing mystical dances in the smoky performance nights that were a part of that strange time. Sydney's Yellow House was in the long term no more sustainable than Van Gogh's, as it ended in a heroin haze. Afterwards, even though George's mystic directions moved towards Aboriginal rainbow myths, he kept that passion for things Islamic. Maybe it was the impossibly beautiful calligraphy, the sounds of the voices singing, or even just that old-fashioned instinct for adventure, but from the 1980s onwards George started travelling to many different lands where Islam has touched the religious instinct of the people. He made informal links with the Australian Army's Peacekeeping Unit, which has led to the acquisition of many of his paintings and photographs by the Australian War Memorial.

 

AT FIRST SEEMED that George had almost a ‘Boys' Own Adventure' approach to travel as he recorded conflict and resolution in some of the more colourful parts of the world. But then in 1994 he was in Rwanda. What he saw there – both the horror of death and the bravery of those who were doomed to die – changed him forever. From this experience came The Preacher, a study of a man who could, in the face of death, read aloud the words of comfort from the Sermon on the Mount.

Away from the chaos of the killing fields, George travelled in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, always making art, always drawing. His increasingly grizzled appearance, with tanned skin and green eyes, means he can pass for a Pashtun, especially when dressed as a local. He can also speak the language, albeit with an Australian accent – a useful skill when travelling through parts where people don't speak English. He has over the years made pilgrimages to a Sufi community in the North-West Frontier (NWF) country of Pakistan, a place where he is accepted as a seeker of truth by their ancient leader, who is also a subject for his art, as well as being the source of much of his understanding of Islam.

The ability to slip under the radar so that he looks like a local, combined with the kind of naïveté that refuses to see barriers, led to his most surprising act of bravado, which also set him on a pathway as the artist who most eloquently speaks for the Age of Terror. In 2003, George travelled to Baghdad both before and just after the American-led invasion. Armed only with a friendly grin, he walked up to US soldiers with his video camera and talked with them about the kind of music they played when they were blasting their way into the city in their tanks. They told of how heavy rock kept them sane during the killings on patrol. The resulting film, Soundtrack to War, is a classic on the way popular culture impacts on the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. It cleverly uses the soldiers' lives to hold a mirror to modern America, and in its MTV approach reveals a certain raw innocence as well as folly in the US crusade for oil. George was able to establish the soldiers' confidence with his habit of posing disarmingly innocent questions, and also because, wherever he goes, he draws. People who are wary of journalists wearing flak jackets and loaded with heavy-duty gear are put off-guard by an artist with his sketchbook, even if he is also shooting with a video camera.

More recently, George has been ranging through Pakistan, spending months at a time in the NWF to see how the rich multi-layered Islamic world he loves is changing – and not for the better. He has painted and drawn, photographed and filmed, and out of this has come Miscreants, a film now in post-production that questions what is fact and what is real in a place where nothing is as it seems. This is the land of the Pashtun, at the eastern edge of the Hindu Kush, bridging the pathways of central Asia. It has since time immemorial been the target of political and military intrigue by many ambitious powers. In the short term, Alexander the Great succeeded, but he was the only one. The NWF is the landscape of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, where the young spy defeats the Russians in ‘the Great Game'. Today, Osama bin Laden is supposed to live there in deep mountain caves. Westerners, especially those wearing local clothes and speaking the language, are not a common sight.

The peculiar nature and great danger of the frontier states comes not just from the sure and certain knowledge that the Taliban are on the move, but because the harsh mountain country has its own traditions of unforgiving misogyny. One of the reasons why the Taliban continues to be successful here is that it shares common values with the people of the hills. The main difference between the beliefs of the Taliban leaders and those of the average villager is that the Taliban can probably more readily articulate why it condemns the decadence of popular Indian and Western culture. The locals just think of it as evil.

 

NOTHING CAN EVER excuse the acts of the pack rapists who terrorised the suburbs of south-west Sydney some years ago. Certainly it was the worst defamation of the complexity of Islamic cultures to claim that they committed their crimes because of their religious faith. The boys who, with their father, indicated such total contempt for all women came from Charsadda, a town in the NWF. Razi Azmi, writing in the cosmopolitan Pakistani Daily Times, rightly described their behaviour as springing from ‘dangerously deformed cultural beliefs'. But violent misogyny is very much a part of traditional frontier culture. This is a society that actively suppresses the female voice, the female image. In this context, even the Taliban can look restrained.

George explains the local mindset by calling this region ‘the planet of the men'. There are no women to be seen. Even relatively bohemian men like George's actor friends keep their wives and daughters invisible in compounds at the back of the house or behind curtains. They will consort with actresses and other women of the demi monde, but respectable women remain the private possessions of their fathers, husbands and sons. Well before Islam, this culture combined aggression towards enemies with the camaraderie of kinship, the ancient obligations of a host and the need to exact revenge with honour. Layer this into official misogyny and all sorts of contradictions emerge.

Men marry the women their family choose for them, and father children through them. But many sexual relations are with their own gender. In Pashtun culture, unmarried ‘beardless youths' are not regarded as men, and are therefore available to all other men for sex, whether they want it or not. By defining young men as androgynous and therefore sexually available, Pashtun culture encourages intense male bonding while rendering women irrelevant to romance. One of the consequences of this is a culture of child abuse and predatory behaviour by older men. A UNICEF supported report targets this belief as being the justification for widespread child abuse in the region. Despite the very real risks to those he films, George persuaded a number of men, including a young prostitute, to describe their world. They know that people who go against the grain are ‘miscreants'. Those who commit crimes are ‘miscreants'. Those who fight the government are ‘miscreants', and the forces who resist the Taliban are also ‘miscreants'. It seems at times that it is not possible to be in and around NWF Pakistan without being labelled with a term that has echoes of nineteenth century music hall villainy. But what is good and evil can be blurred. Loyalty to kin, courtesy as host, revenge against wrongs to the clan: these are virtues. Women who expose their bodies and publicly flaunt their sexual availability are evil, as are the men who look.

 

THE FOREIGN CULTURE that most readily threatens to corrupt the rigid Pashtun mindset of studied hypocrisy and fierce militarism is not Western decadence. Rather, it is the joyous bubbly musical spectacular of India's Bollywood. In villages that are out of the reach of television, the DVD is king, as cheap monitors and DVD players are smuggled over the Chinese border. Market stalls sell pirated copies of Indian and Western movies, and images of curvaceous ladies dance across the screen singing of their love for tall handsome men. The Taliban rejects these films as decadent. It destroys what it cannot control. The first target for any bombing campaign is the local video store.

I sometimes think of George as working in the ancient tradition of the Holy Fool, the apparent idiot innocent who by his acts exposes the evils of the world. That is the only logical explanation for why he constructed the filming of Miscreants the way he did. He was in Peshawar, staying at the SS Club, trying to work out how to tell the story of the rise of the Taliban and the struggle for power in Pakistan, when he was approached by local actors and DVD distributors, people wanting to ensure the survival of a local film industry, despite the Taliban. It was a particularly fraught time. Radical pro-Taliban students in Islamabad's Red Mosque had set themselves in opposition to the militarist Pakistani government. In July 2007, at the end of a siege that lasted over eight days, 154 people were killed. George had seen the Pakistani army storm the mosque, and filmed the blindfolded prisoners as they were led from the building. The aftermath unleashed Taliban counter-strikes across the country.

Only a determined fantasist could see this assorted crew of burlesque performers and opportunists as representatives of the best of local culture. But George has more than an element of fantasy to the way he envisages his films, and so he saw the chance to make his art out of their desire to make and sell highly profitable films.

So this was the deal. George would finance the production of two Pashtun language films – one a comedy with dwarfs (representing George W. Bush and Pervez Musharraf) fighting in a chook house, and the other a melodrama about a Sufi warrior. In return, he had the access to make the film he wanted to make about artistic freedoms and the way fundamentalism is destroying both popular culture and ancient traditions. All wealth is comparative. By Australian standards, George is not rich. Friends have often marvelled how he and his wife Gabrielle Dalton have a long and intimate relationship with impending financial doom, somehow always called off at the last minute. But in Peshawar A$7000 will fully fund two films starring local actors, including two dwarfs (essential ingredients for comedy) and three appropriately plump actresses.

The video shop owner who will be distributing the DVDs, a cheerful pornographer, is very definite about what his customers want, indicating with gestures to describe ‘a big fat lady, with big boobs, and this much fat. Men get very excited. They want to see the breasts, her stomachs, her something.'

It is clear that the men making this film are more interested in the actresses' physical attributes than their devotion to method, even though two of the three take their craft seriously. The third is a local prostitute, who wants to use the film as a way of promoting her illicit profile. It is the actresses who are taking most of the risks in revealing their faces and their clothed bodies to the camera and the male gaze. In this kingdom of men, women are punished severely for sins of the flesh. One of the actresses is persuaded to take part in such a risky venture when George, master of the tall tale, tells her that ‘you're the most beautiful girl in the industry and we want you to be in the film'. He brings in the cause of art to support the production of the second risqué melodrama. He tells her that the revival of the Pashtun film industry could spring from this film, which is as important to her country as Cubism was to Paris. ‘This could be Picasso's world in 1912 in Paris,' he says, likening her to Picasso's model and muse.

The film in which she stars is George's reimagining of Islamic myth to create the figure of a Sufi warrior, a noble mystic fighter who defeats anti-Islamic evil. This could be awkward, as Sufism is one of the many peaceful paths to God. In order to ensure that his venture is theologically appropriate, George took the actor with him to meet his friend, the ancient Sufi scholar who welcomed the venture but told the actor to dress as a Sufi pilgrim and visit an ancient sacred shrine. Here is where fiction and reality blend as the villagers followed the actor as a true pilgrim, and tried to honour him as such.

George relishes the larger than life adventure and danger of some of this filmmaking, but the pornographer distributor has a more realistic assessment of the motivation of both those buying the films and those who condemn them. ‘They, they're vulgar,' he lisps happily. This judgement is endorsed by the senior Taliban figure, also interviewed by George. ‘Dramas are not real and drama is not reality,' he intones. ‘Islam stands for practical life.'

The Taliban's terrible practicality stands as the counterpoint to the light-hearted frivolity of the films. Such a single-minded approach enables it to bomb the video stores and replace them with stalls selling its own Taliwood work – films of fighting and executions, showing children blooded for battle by cutting the throats of selected criminals. Practicality leads the Taliban to purify the land of Islamic traditions it does not share. Sufi communities are bombed, Shia mosques are destroyed. This is the Islamic equivalent of Oliver Cromwell's equally single-minded troops smashing the ‘idolatrous' English churches in the sixteenth century – and its consequences may be equally long lasting.

In the face of this fanaticism, George has his camera, and his questions. In the bombed-out shell of a Shia mosque where walls are freshly covered in the blood of victims, a grieving relative speaks of the way miscreant fanatics have betrayed the religion that he holds dear in killing all his family.

Even though George does not single-handedly save the Pashtun film industry with his melodramas, and it is unlikely that art will ever change the world in the way that he wants it to, Miscreants will create what George calls ‘a Taliwood story' for the rest of us. And in doing so we might begin to understand some of the forces that are shaping our world.

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